Citizens across the world are using technology and alternative energy to overcome power challenges

Architect Richard Schuh and his wife rely on a Tesla Powerwall connected to the solar panels on their roof for power. Photo: REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

Architect Richard Schuh and his wife rely on a Tesla Powerwall connected to the solar panels on their roof for power. Photo: REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

Published Nov 14, 2021


IN RECENT days, South Africans have felt the true impact of challenges at Eskom. Many have been without electricity for more hours than before.

This has affected their quality of life in business, education and health.

It has become clear that South Africans will have to find alternative methods to keep going while Eskom develops a long-term solution.

In view of this, over the next few weeks, Fast Company (SA) will be taking a look at how people across the world have coped with similar challenges, starting with California in the US.

Adele Peters (from Fast Company) here focuses on California:

Hundreds of thousands of homes in California lost power early on recently as windy, dry weather increased the risk of fire, prompting the electric utility, PG&E, to shut down the grid to avoid any chance of the type of power-line accident that sparked the deadly wildfire in the small town of Paradise less than a year ago.

It could take days for power to be restored. But, at some homes, solar-and battery-storage systems are keeping the lights on.

“Between the solar and the batteries, we could go on indefinitely as long as there’s some sun,” says architect Richard Schuh, who lives and works in the hills north of the town of Sonoma in an area without power.

He and his wife rely on a Tesla Powerwall connected to the solar panels on their roof.

They decided to install the system after a fire in 2017 blazed through their property, sparing their house but taking out power for three weeks.

“We had solar the whole time, but the solar was shut down because it’s connected to the grid,” he says. “So we weren’t able to use that even though it was still generating power.”

They installed the battery earlier this year. When the utility warns that it may need to cut off power, the battery receives an alert, so that it can automatically fully charge in advance. When the grid is down, the system operates independently, continuing to store power from the house’s solar panels.

“When the grid goes down, everything shuts down with it,” says Anne Hoskins, chief policy officer at Sunrun, a company that sells solar power systems and home batteries.

“But when you have the batteries and the solar panels and the inverters, we’re able to essentially create a little microgrid for the house, so that the house can continue to receive solar power during the day. And then solar power can be stored in the battery as well, that could then be used in the evening when it’s dark.”

When the grid operates normally, batteries manage how solar panels send power back into the grid, helping provide power when demand peaks. That means that a homeowner can save money on electric bills since the utility charges more when demand is highest.

“It provides value, not just during an outage but actually allows you to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates all year round,” says Dan Lashof, a homeowner in Berkeley who uses a Powerwall battery with a home solar system.

As more people install batteries, it can also help reduce the risk of fire by easing stress on transmission lines.

“The more people that we can get engaged in helping to provide energy at what we call the ‘edge of the grid’, the less has to be transported through forest areas and over system distribution and transmission lines that we know are really in need of repair,” Hoskins says.

In some areas, it may make sense to eventually install larger community microgrids that provide solar and battery power for multiple buildings.

“In California, I think there’s probably an incredible amount of opportunity for communities to selfpower,” says Christopher Burgess, a project director at the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute, which has worked on building solar microgrids in the Caribbean.

At the moment, he says, the cost of the technology means that it’s economical to use renewable energy for some power, but it makes sense to stay connected to the grid.

But microgrids could potentially become fully independent.

“I could definitely see a future where the transmission lines are just so long and so problematic, and it gets more and more dry due to climate change, and those things just become so much of a vulnerability that it’s actually better just to ‘island off’ certain communities,” he says.

For individual homeowners in California who are trying to figure out how to deal with losing power more frequently – sometimes for as many as eight-consecutive days – some may consider standard backup generators.

But Schuh says that in the most-recent major power outage in his neighbourhood, some of his neighbours quickly used up fuel; solar power and batteries can continue to work without the need for more supplies. Generators also pollute.

“The last thing we want right now, when we’re facing these disasters largely because of the climate crisis, is to be exacerbating the climate problem,” says Susannah Churchill, the California director of the non-rofit Vote Solar. “And sending a whole lot of particulate matter into the air and harming public health with thousands and thousands of new back-up generators, running during times of power outages and disasters.”

Critical community facilities – from schools to hospitals and fire stations – could also begin to rely on solar-and battery-storage systems to keep running when the grid goes down. In the Bay Area, some schools closed. Some people couldn’t work.

In Santa Rosa, where a fire burnt entire neighbourhoods in 2017, fire stations lost power in the outage.

A California disaster relief centre uses a Tesla battery and solar power to ensure that it can continue operating when the grid is down. Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, run by Sutter Health, recently installed solar panels and plans to add battery storage to prepare for future outages, says project partner Ameresco, a renewable energy company.

EnergySage, a digital platform people use to search for home solar systems, says interest in energy storage rose 11%, or more than twice the national average, in PG&E’s service area in California between July 2018 and March 2019.

“I think that Californians are realising that we’re facing this new abnormal which isn’t going away, where climate-related disasters, including fire risk, are just a part of the landscape now,” says Churchill.

“And so, people are really thinking about how they can make themselves more resilient.”

This year, the state passed a new subsidy to encourage low-income and disadvantaged households in high-firerisk neighborhoods to install batteries. Now, Churchill says, it makes sense for the state to do even more.

Peoples in California have various reasons for using alternative energy compared to South Africans. In California, it’s the fire that interrupts their ability to access power. In South Africa, a state entity in the process of maintaining infrastructure is unable to provide reliable power leading to frequent load shedding.

The impact, however, is the same, in the sense that people struggle to access power. Communities in California are using technological innovations to access power.

Although the technologies may be expensive for some South Africans, the California experience shows that it is possible for people to figure out their own way while the state is working on a solution. It is time that South Africans accept that in the short term, solutions will come from themselves and not the state.

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